The Fate of the Album

July 9, 2017 — Before my rapid-fire trips to Texas started, I heard a segment on the radio, an interview with a member of the indie band Muse about a single they were releasing. The band member being interviewed was proud of the single, entitled Dig Down, and said the band had decided to put out the single, rather than wait until they had material for an entire album, because they thought the single was good. Three trips to Texas later, that interview is still in my head; the single, not so much. It wasn’t that good.

Releasing singles is a pattern these days. The indie band Macklemore released a string of singles, and then compiled those singles onto an album after the singles got recognition. Same thing happened with the dance-DJ duo The Chainsmokers – a constant release of singles, then an EP. I’m sure there are others, but that’s what I can think of right now.

Indeed, if sales are a judge, and certainly this is what the majority of the third party articles out there say, the only artists who can justify releasing an entire album’s worth of material are those who have the fan following to sell a large volume, by today’s standards, of albums: Taylor Swift, Adele… that’s pretty much it. So what does that mean for the fate of the album?

Statisticians look to the sales numbers themselves. Nielsen recently released its mid-year report for 2017, and the numbers are scary if you’re an album lover because what the numbers show is a huge spike in streaming to the detriment of album sales. Streaming services, such as Spotify, iTunes, etc., track the streams of music, paying a portion to the artists for each stream. Those streams (audio only) are now more than 184 billion so far in 2017, an increase of 62.4% over this period last year, itself marking years of increased streaming. Album sales are down 18.4%, “track equivalent albums” sales are down 19.9%, digital album sales are down 19.9%, and physical album sales are down 17%. Perhaps the numbers need to be corrected because some song I can’t stand by Ed Sheeran, called Shape of You, set some record, spiking the numbers for March. Oh and people are streaming Prince songs to the tune of 16 million on-demand streams, a 5,500% increase. Still, even if I could figure out how to correct for those anomalies, the fate of the album as a thing the consumer wants is not looking good.

As a consumer, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, while I still try to buy a few releases from my favorite artists, for the most part I too stream, and I always have Youtube up and running with some sort of music playing. This allows me to hear a great deal more music than my budget would otherwise allow for, and I really like the exposure I get to lots of different artists. But at the same time, I really love albums. In fact, I mostly stream albums. I don’t make that many playlists. I think an artist’s best expression of their work comes through playing an album – their playlist. Indeed, most of the time, my favorite tracks are not the singles, or if they are, they are the last-released singles. So I personally don’t want to see albums go.

Looking at this from the standpoint of a musician gives me the greatest question. I think it’s possible that single releases could be a benefit to an artist. For a more established artist, releasing singles is a less expensive methodology, and keeps the artist in the mind of their listeners – a single a month, perhaps, as opposed to waiting one to two (or more) years for an album’s worth of material to be written and finished.  If the musician is a newer artist, that artist could release singles, perhaps on a routine basis, and build a following. Better yet, if the artist releases a single via a video that resonates with the public, then the later singles would get even more traction. My reading of the history of Lana del Rey supports this strategy. She released a video, a really well-done video, for the song Video Games; the video became a viral success, then her career – a career not so supported by radio hits, but by albums that are followed by her fans, took off. Albums again? The best I can tell, even the artists want to make albums. Heck, even the band Muse I mentioned at the top of this article as thinking a release of a single was preferred are now claiming they are working on an album.

The single. The album. I know everyone wants to make money; certainly the artists want to make money. Singles make money. But….

So far, that single-first strategy seems to be done to further the artist’s goal of putting out albums, even if the album sales don’t really amount to the single sales. And even more importantly, albums, not singles, make an artist’s legacy. Think of the great albums, albums where you put on the album, and the music becomes a story, albums so good every song became a single just because all the songs were that good. I could list many: The White Album; Led Zeppelin I, Led Zeppelin IV, Some Girls (don’t debate me on that one, it was awesome); Van Halen I; The Wall; Hysteria, and not leaving out pop, Thriller, Purple Rain, heck, even the self-titled first Madonna record. I could do this all day. So can you. Albums. These are the works that turn a million-selling artist into a legend. And what artist doesn’t want to become a legend?

The fate of the album? I hope it’s not just in the consumer’s hands. If it is, consumers will drive away the album, drive away any hope of future legends, just like consumers have created the “fashion” of today – everyone wearing whatever clothes the mass market retailers can order on six month turn around, all made in China. Will music become a single-release only business, more and more homogenized, music’s version of “made in China”, driven only by money made from singles? Oh please, no! I hope the fate of the album is in the hands of the artists of today, and their drive to become the legends of tomorrow, which I suppose is the key, legends from music, not from the sales of the very few who can pull it off.